I Finally Understand Tough Love

I always thought the idea of Tough Love was a joke. A dinosaur of an idea. Mildly sadistic even. But I’ll come back to that. Let’s talk dogs for a minute because they represent for me, pure emotion. And it’s dawned on me that the place where tough love can be be necessary, is in working with pure emotion.

I anthropomorphise my dog. At least I did. Until today. This morning, for the second time, my grown puppy dragged me to the ground in a power-struggle to get to another dog. I skinned my hand, bruised my knee and wounded my pride as I hit gravel. It felt like a betrayal because I love and indulge her

“Why would she do that!?”

Because she’s a dog.

According to doggy experts, dogs don’t ‘do’ love and respect in the same ways we do. My young dog has interpreted my love and softness as a sign she must be very important and powerful in her pack. Her doggy brain sees all the attention I give her as meaning she must be in a leadership position, a pack decision maker. I haven’t done her, or me, any favours by treating her as a person. I get that now. Today I understood Tough Love, really understood it, for the first time as something she needs for her wellbeing, and the functioning of our pack. As I type these words, I wince just a little, because I believe in softness. I believe that compassion can heal the world.

 

This has been a hard lolly for me to suck, this Tough Love thing. I always mocked it. I questioned, is it even a thing? Isn’t it just old school, authoritarian bunkum? Another brick in the wall, uncool, cruel, unenlightened?

 

But I see now, with my skinned hand and new eyes, to me, tough love means calm leadership that balances high emotion. Love isn’t as simple as softness alone – whether interacting with a dog, or managing our own inner life.

Dogs live effortlessly in the present moment because they operate purely on instinct and primal driving feelings. They lack the self-awareness to observe their feelings and make mindful choices. When we’re all about emotion, we too are a hot mess of powerful, reactive instinct.

They need, like our emotions need, some cooling leadership, tough love to observe and direct the raw emotions as they ebb and flow, to keep the pack mentally and physically safe and intact.

Today was a gift in painful wrapping paper. They say training a dog is about training the owner first.

I live for empathy, love and compassion, so tough love must deepen, not go against, those values. In a nutshell, for me today’s revelation on tough love is about re-emphasising the role of my wise mind. Psychologist Marsha Linehan taught that wise mind is the state in which we’re most balanced and effective. It’s the state in which our intellect and emotion overlap through a mindful, self-aware perspective. Wise mind leads emotion, infusing some reason, without killing the feeling.

Tough love is not necessarily about imposing discipline or withdrawing warm care. It’s not about pushing for results or crushing feelings and instincts. That would not be love at all.

It is, for me, the emphasis of the cool, consistent inner leader, the wise mind that says

“I won’t be automatically ruled by raw emotion if it is not helpful to me or my pack, in this moment”.

Tough love is balancing feeling and intellect through mindfulness.

Sometimes it means getting on with whatever you want to do without waiting to feel like it (because you may never feel like it). It’s recognising that feeling alone is not the boss.

Paradoxically, tough love can mean having the firmness to enforce self-compassion, (yes, the hardness to insist on softness!!!) if for example, your ancient, carved-in-stone method of berating yourself is no longer working.

And for my dog and I, on a practical level, tough love means understanding that a being who operates on pure emotion needs more from their leader than affection. It means deciding that my cool, calm, wise mind will be there for both of us, more consistently and with greater depth of understanding.